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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Mining my Hillbilly Roots

Deal With the Devil by Gerald Costlow
Second in the Appalachia series.
also available Monkeybars and Lulu 
In this exciting sequel to A Distant Call, it's a hot summer in 1920's Appalachia and love is blooming along with the wildflowers.   Jolene and Seth are in love.  Unfortunately, she is the daughter of a wealthy businessman and he is the penniless son of a local moonshiner.  Their romance across the social gulf is forbidden and must remain secret.

But there are far older and darker secrets in the mountains, and our young sweethearts become caught up in a violent world of past debts and broken deals.  When the Devil himself shows up to collect, someone is going to pay a terrible price.  Jolene and Seth must have faith in each other and heed the advice of the local Preacher to save both their families.

Mining my Hillbilly Roots

As a writer, sooner or later you realize that some of your richest material can come from your childhood and the people who raised you.  When I decided to place my first series of supernatural romance adventure stories in the Appalachia foothills, I mined my own memories of stories told to me by my extended family to create a detailed, authentic world. 

My family migrated north from the Appalachia foothills into central Ohio on what became known as the Hillbilly Highway, seeking jobs in the steel mills.  By the way, I never heard the word “Appalachia” used by my family.  The Appalachian mountains stretch from New York to Missouri but my folks only knew they lived either “out on the ridge” or “down in the holler” depending on which part of the foothills they’d staked out.

My mother, age 5, in front of their cabin.
That's her younger brother and her Uncle with her.
Their old horse died that summer.

So we’re not Appalachians.  We’re Hillbillies.  If you’ve read a Lil Abner comic or seen a “Ma and Pa Kettle” movie or watched a Hee-Haw show, then you’ve seen the stereotype that goes along with the name.  Like all such exaggerations, there are enough lies to insult someone if you’re so inclined, but enough truth to poke good-natured fun at yourself if you know how to laugh. 

So what was it really like, growing up in the Appalachian foothills?  In one word: struggle.  People don’t try to raise their families crammed into a two room cabin halfway up a mountain with no running water or electricity because they enjoy the rustic life.  If they had money, they’d buy a homestead with some actual flat land to farm or move to town.  When they did finally move, it was out of desperation.  You survived by growing and canning your own garden produce, raised a hog or two to butcher, had chickens for eggs and Sunday meals, and most of the meat you put on the table came from hunting and fishing.  Just getting by each month was always a struggle. 

The characters and world of my Appalachia series reflect the people and world I observed firsthand or as described in long conversations with my Grandparents.  It’s not at all like the stereotype, but then again you can see where outsiders got their ideas.  In the 1920s, while the rest of the nation had flush toilets and electricity and telephones and automobiles, the Hillbilly world remained stuck in the past century.  It wasn’t until the New Deal following the great depression that any effort at all was put into extending the benefits of modern society to these people.  Think of it as a time capsule to our frontier days existing side by side with Prohibition era roaring twenties.  It is a treasure trove of possibilities and a world ripe for adventure.  I hope you enjoy reading the series as much as I enjoy writing it.    

So what have you mined from your own roots for your stories?              


  1. Great post, Gerry!
    The picture reminds me so much of my grandmother who was raised in the mountains of North Carolina. They thought they had died and gone to Heaven when they were relocated to South Carolina to work in the textile mills and had their first running water in their 4 room mill village house. At 13 years old my grandmother swept textile plant floors for 50 cents a week until she turned 14 and could work in the spinning room where she could earn $2 a week if she made production. What a change from hauling water in buckets from a branch, skinning squirrels and rabbits for the table, and sharing one corner of a 2 room cabin with 4 siblings at bedtime.
    I love your Appalachian series and can't wait for more. Keep writing... Becca

  2. I enjoyed reading this post, Gerry. I've lived and worked in East Tennessee in the 80s and there was still some residual resemblance there to what you describe. Human misery and greatness can bed found in many places. And yes, I mine my own experiences in my books. Write what you know. I wish you success with these books.

  3. Gerry--I suppose most of us do mine something from our childhood, some more than others. I used my grandparents old farm house, farm, and mules in a "coming of age" story about a girl in N. Texas in 1901.
    My grandparents lived there, and lived as you describe your mother living. The garden, the hog buthering, the chickens, the smoke house...no electricity until 1935, and never running water inside the house. The outhouse was used until my grandfather died in 1961.
    It was a tough way to live, but when we traveled back to visit from a developed town in West Texas, none of that bothered us. We were with "Granny" and "Papa" and that was all that mattered.
    Such a good post, and I thank you for the entertaining reading.

  4. Thanks Becca and Celia. I remember going to stay with kin living back on the ridge during the summers, and to this day the unique miasma found inside of an outhouse in summer actually brings back happy memories.

  5. And thanks Linda, of course. Thing is, poverty doesn't mean being unhappy all the time. People find ways to insert a little joy in their life once in a while.

  6. There's quite a bit of my native Appalachia in a lot of my work- especially GOOD REBEL SOIL and the upcoming DEAD REDNECKS! series. And after 6 years in the Midwest, I am delighted to get back to my (and Miz Dolly's!) "Tennessee mountain home."

    On the other hand, most of my dad's side of the family relocated to Michigan and Ohio for factory work, and never came back. But in a couple of weeks my Dad is coming down, and we're going to visit the little church cemetery where all our Smiths are buried, from my grandparents to my great-great-great-great-grandfather who was born in these mountains in 1802.

  7. Troy,
    Visiting is great, isn't it? Mother can list off lots of kinfolk still back on the ridge.

    A Dead Redneck series gives me visions of Hillbilly zombies, or maybe vampires. There were lots of mysteries and unexplained stuff going on in those hills. All ripe for putting down in stories.

  8. Appalachia and hillbillies sound far more interesting, possibly more 'romantic' too despite the poverty, than my ancestors' background in the tiny terraced houses clustered around the cotton mills in industrial Lancashire!

  9. Just goes to show that one person's humdrum roots is another person's exotic locale. For instance, the Wife and I absolutely love the old reruns on PBS here like "Keeping Up Appearances" and such. And "All Creatures Great and Small" made me want to be a country vet.


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